Androids as False Gods

This is the first in a series of movie reviews I would like to add to this blog. This was originially posted on the ITP Core I – Fall 2010 blog:

In his article “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Christopher A. Sims argues that Dick’s representation of androids “registers its protest against the dehumanizing effects of individualism and demonstrates how technology can be used as a means to reclaim the essence of humanity” (67). Sims is standing directly against the work of Kevin McNamara, and also entering into a dialogue with the seminal work of Martin Heidegger “The Question Concerning Technology” written in 1954. While I disagree that the androids in Dick’s post-apocalyptic world re-enforce the strengths of human nature, I find the paradox itself to be a rewarding pursuit, especially in terms of Heidegger’s text. I also find the representation of androids in the novel to be significantly different than in the movie Blade Runner, and wonder if these differences encourage opposing conclusions.

Is the representation of the androids in Blade Runner, and the text on which it was based,  humanizing or dehumanizing?

This question is not only at the center of the criticism surrounding Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it also identifies the anxiety that fuels fear of technology in science fiction. The question demands that both humanity and technology are defined as individual, separate and fixed terms. However, paradoxically demands they are defined in relationship to each other. The inevitable stalemate occurs when the audience accepts that both humanity and technology advance and evolve too rapidly and too unpredictably to contain in the confines of contemporary language. Heidegger’s answer to “what is technology” is a perfect explanation of this conundrum. We cannot define technology because we cannot experience the essence of technology – or technology that can be encountered among all technology – because we are “unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it” (1). While Heidegger claims that technology is a human activity, Sims explores the idea that the use of technology is not exclusively human. Both authors agree that is it a means to an end. So, if technology can be defined as a means of control, then it necessarily CAN BE CONTROLLED. Clearly, this is not true when dealing with androids.

This is why the androids in both the film and the book generate fear. They cannot be controlled. This existence beyond human control is manifested in very different ways in the film than in the book. In the film, the androids that hold the most power are villainous. The super slick, stylized Rutger Hauer as Roy Baty  in Blade Runner is the embodiment of 1980′s economic, sexual and physical power. His mechanics make him super human. The existence of this android highlights what is lacking in humanity physically. He is better because he lacks the weaknesses derived from the natural human body . And he can be improved. What he lacks, which is the same in the book version, is emotion. However, in the movie emotion makes Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard a weak, awkward, average joe in last year’s trench coat. Throughout most of the movie Ford looks like a deer caught in the headlights of the future. He is pitiful, even when considering Deckard’s final triumph over Baty in the bizarre roof battle that is very inconsistent with the moral landscape of Dick’s book. I would argue that Ridley Scott’s androids are objects of desire because they lack emotion. Emotion is shown as weakness, almost a tragic flaw for the protagonist. This is dehumanizing, but in a shallow world of Hollywood values where heroism traditionally must exist outside the world of emotional attachments.

Dick’s book does not focus on Baty as villain. Instead, the direct counterpoint to Deckard in the text is Phil Resch, an android version of himself. In fact the book is filled with mechanical twins, a strange trope that exists in many of Dick’s works, most likely because his biological twin died in infancy. These doppelgangers are particularly significant when comparing Deckard to Resch and Iran to Rachel. Much like the movie version the androids reveal the physical inadequacies of humanity. Resch is a better bounty hunter, and Rachel is a better sexual partner. However, more disturbingly, the book version concentrates on the emotional development of these androids, and the emotional deterioration of the humans. In many ways the androids are more in touch with their emotional state than the humans. Deckard, Iran, and seemingly the rest of Dick’s society, must dial in their emotional state on their empathy box while the androids organically form attachments to humans and animals. At the conclusion of the book the reader really does not know what separates the machines from the humans. Ultimately, the androids are superior emotionally and physically.

Both the movie and the book are successful in creating fear based on loss of control. The humans cannot control the machines. The machines are no longer tools that humans use to control their environment. In the movie, this problem is solved through planned obsolescence. The androids will “die” in four years. However, in the book, the question of control is more complex. The colony of Mars where androids are a slave race serving humanity is a distant and unfamiliar place for the audience. In the limited view of the narrative the humans are controlled by machines, specifically the celebrity cult figures Buster Friendly and Wilbur Mercer. In my opinion,  the epicenter of fear in Dick’s work is his deconstruction of religion….and the truth is terrifying.